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King Bee: A professor by day, he creates a buzz as a daring cartoonist

Sunday, February 03, 2002

By Tom Gibb Post-Gazette Staff Writer

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Mother Nature -- what a rascal.

Jay Hosler spends 15 years of academic life en route to a small-college assistant professorship, where he focuses on insects and his students dub him "Bee Man." He carries research credentials from Ohio State University's honeybee lab.

Bees, Hosler figures, are pure amazement.

Jay Hosler blended science, art and humor to brew his comic novel about bees. "When I see scientists, I see very funny, lively people," says the assistant professor at Juniata College. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

Then, one stings him, and he suffers an allergic reaction. Nose closes, tongue feels swelled to the dimensions of a family-size bar of Lifebuoy. An allergist with a needle winds up poking Bee Man like a tournament dart board to ease him past his sensitivity to bee stings.

"Nature is wonderfully imaginative," Hosler says.

That's the point.

Maybe it did him dirt. But Hosler, 35 -- Juniata College assistant professor of biology by day, cartoonist lots of the rest of the time -- still finds nature so sensational that he's trying to explain it in comic books,

Call them graphic novels if you want to get hoity-toity. But Hosler, self-taught cartoonist and recovering comic book junkie, marched onto turf patrolled by the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman to produce "Clan Apis," a 158-page adventure-comedy starring honeybees.

Not bees in tights and capes, mind you. These are talking bees, bees at work, bees in peril, bees doing bee things that most folks would have no inkling about unless they spent 12 weeks in isolation with The Learning Channel.

There's even pathos spread thick, as lead character Nyuki (Swahili for "bee"), once a wisecracking larva, limps dutifully toward the end of her seven-week life cycle.

"Two little girls e-mailed me and said, 'My daddy read it to me, and I cried when Nyuki died,'" Hosler said.

Discover magazine, for one, was smitten enough to declare that Hosler "ingeniously reworks the plot conventions of the musty old action comic" and "sneaks a lot of lessons about bee anatomy, behavior and ecology into his brisk story."

"It's stealth learning," said Daryn Guarino, a Columbus, Ohio, comics dealer who helps bankroll Hosler's efforts.

Hosler, however, said he doesn't want to pigeonhole his work as art, education or entertainment and he aims it at any age group that takes a liking to it.

Next up: the comic book "Sandwalk Adventures," a five-parter, the first installment already out. It's about a follicle mite that camps in Charles Darwin's eyebrow, mistakes him for a deity and starts a give-and-take peppered with one-liners, a beginner's guide to natural selection.

"We could finally get the answers to life's big questions," one mite declares.

"Like what?" the other asks.

"Well, like why we don't have butts," the first replies.

Hosler -- properly, a neurophysiologist focusing on insects -- has been in print before. But a lot of it was offerings such as "Heritable Variation for Latent Inhibition and Its Correlation to Reversal Learning in the Honey Bee," a piece you'll find in the attic, in your stash of Journals of Comparative Psychology.

It didn't have readers hanging on the walls, howling.

But only part of this neatly groomed, well-scrubbed Midwestern boy grew up to ruminate on things academic.

The other part grew up to be a cartoonist. He drew for school papers as he wound from a bachelor's degree in biological sciences at DePauw University to a doctorate from Notre Dame to post-doctoral work at Ohio State.

A scientist trying to pen funny comics seems a mismarriage on the order of Mike Tyson hosting "Masterpiece Theatre." Nobody to date has deemed it worthwhile to compile "The Big Book of Neurophysiologist Humor."

Hosler isn't sure why.

"When I see scientists, I see very funny, lively people," he said. "When you go to a party with scientists, you talk about art, theater, music, that kind of jazz."

It's a happy enough match that he'd like both to teach and cartoon forever. "The choice was, like, use the right side of your brain or use the left side of your brain," he said. "I happen to like them both."

At Ohio State, where he was doing research before jumping to the faculty of 1,300-student Juniata in south-central Pennsylvania's Huntingdon County in the fall of 2000, Hosler, in a style growing somewhere between Disney and graphic novelist Will Eisner, put technical pens to paper and drew five installments collected as "Clan Apis."

"I'm reading this book, 'Biology of the Honey Bee,' and it was, like, engrossing stuff -- like 'Whoa! Wow!' " he said. "I thought, 'This could be a story.' To me, bees are way more interesting than superheroes."

The volume retails for $15 and, in the meager-sales universe of graphic novels, is set for a third, 2,000-copy printing. That's after a total of 3,500 copies sold when the story was issued as five individual installments.

As Hosler tells it, this nature stuff is action adventure -- bees chasing bad guys, building architectural wonders for hives, fighting to the death to protect kin. It begs the question why nobody's optioned movie rights to the page-turner "Neurobiology of the Insect Brain."

"We look to space and wonder what's out there," he said. "But if you just look down at what's right here, it's amazing."

For Hosler, it almost always has been.

His route to Huntingdon, Pa., began in Huntington, Ind., population 18,000, where he grew up with one sister, the children of school guidance counselors.

"I was the nerd. We'd go to the mall, and I'd go to the bookstore. My books were books like 'The Hot-Blooded Dinosaur,'" he said. "Things like cars didn't interest me. I got my first car when I was 28, in graduate school."

And there was the drawing.

Hosler figures that he started when he was about 2 1/2. By elementary school, he was class virtuoso, nurturing the technique and -- despite a manner that's slightly self-effacing -- artistic temperament to go with it.

For instance, when an eighth-grade art teacher opined that a painted papier-mache head he created looked blotchy instead of freckled, Hosler made it the last art course he ever took.

"I can't stand it if somebody tells me how to draw," he said.

"His work always has to be his own," said Lisa Hosler, his wife of five years.

Jay Hosler talks of thrilling to writers such as John Steinbeck and Jane Austen. But at Ohio State, when new comic books hit the racks every Wednesday afternoon, he was a fixture at The Laughing Ogre, a Columbus comics emporium.

"The books were cinematic -- lights and darks, the arrangement of panels," Hosler said. "I remember it as a very enjoyable way to spend time."

About that time, the "Clan Apis" idea Hosler was brewing won a $1,500 prize offered by "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" co-creator Peter Laird to spur artists outside the mainstream to self-publish.

Then, with Laughing Ogre President Daryn Guarino as financier and proceeds of each edition funding the next, "Clan Apis" worked its way from comics shops to Amazon.com.

While Guarino invested cash, Hosler invested himself, taking his talking bees seriously.

"All my main characters have a chunk of me in them," he said. "You see Nyuki resisting change, resisting metamorphosis, not wanting to leave the hive. I'm nervous about change. I worry about mortality. When I wrote the part where Nyuki dies, I had to walk away. I got a little misty."

Hosler has had a metamorphosis of his own.

He used to spend most of his spare time cartooning.

Now, he has a 2-year-old son and another child due in June.

So he's up at 5 in the morning to keep "Sandwalk Adventures" going.

That, Hosler said, is testament to his commitment.

"I couldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it," he said. "I can't drag myself out of bed if it's not fun."

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